“Blue Valentine” (2010)
“Blue Valentine” is about the presence and absence of love, the start and end of a marriage. What makes this sad and painful observation of a failed marriage so genuine is that any moral compass gets erased. There is no contemplation of who was right or wrong in the relationship. Ryan Gosling plays Dean, and Michelle Williams plays Cindy, a couple who feels real. You don’t walk out wondering whether it was Dean or Cindy’s fault as to why they didn’t work. They just didn’t, it is life, and it happens to people.
There are two pivotal scenes in the film, one of which was the reason the MPAA nearly gave it an NC-17 rating. Dean and Cindy take a romantic night off, or what was supposed to be, and check in to a sleazy hotel room that is futuristic themed. In an attempt to rekindle their love, Dean puts on an old, scratchy song from the 70s, one that clearly must’ve meant something to them back in the day. We don’t discover until later it was their song. Meanwhile, they choke down vodka slowly crawling to the moment where they have to make love. Not want to make love but have to. It’s a nearly unbearable scene to watch but absolutely crucial in understanding how far this couple has come since their original spark.
The other pivotal scene comes at the beginning of their courtship. Standing outside what looks to be a floral or bridal shop, Dean twangs a playful tune on his guitar and sings along as Cindy performs an impromptu tap dance for him. It is touching yet heartbreaking knowing how the couple ends up.
Director Derek Cianfrance leaps back and forth in time interspersing between showing the audience what brought Dean and Cindy together and what tore them apart. We watch Dean as a charming, funny and handsome young man with a scrappy sense of workman promise; we understand what Cindy sees in him. Jump ahead to Dean as a 30-year-old with a receding hairline, thick-rimmed glasses and a misconstrued mustache. He works as a painter not bothering to wash his hands with a cigarette always dangling from his lips, but in the way he interacts with his daughter we see his kindness and why Cindy might still love him. Cindy begins as a shy and attractive young woman striving to become a doctor, but she eventually gains a little weight losing her vivacity and glow.
These physical transformations reveal a deeper inner shift of character, and the raw and brutal performances from Gosling and Williams portraying this should be, and most likely will be, nominated for Oscars. These two actors have the chemistry and understanding of the human condition to provide us with two characters who don’t feel like characters at all but like real people of flesh and blood.
“Blue Valentine” asks the demanding questions of what we ask for in a spouse and what the meaning of true love is. As we watch Cindy and Dean, we wonder whether they should’ve been together. Were they right for each other, or was it something out of necessity? The filming is purposefully claustrophobic both in the way their relationship is told and the way shots are framed with the frequent use of close-ups on the two actors.
While a brave and ugly portrait of a marital decline, I couldn’t help but think we weren’t getting anything more than snapshots of Dean and Cindy’s life together; the full picture felt missing. We aren’t clear exactly how they got from point A to point B, but maybe the point is that even they don’t know how.